Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity
Philippians 3:17-21 + Matthew 22:15-22
It’s not often that we have the opportunity to consider together the texts appointed for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity. This Sunday is usually displaced by our celebration of the Reformation. But this year, it just so happens, by God’s providence, that Trinity 23 falls the week before the Reformation, and that’s cause for thanksgiving, because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed at all, but there are some elections coming up, and things are looking rather bleak for the future of our nation, and, really, for all the nations of earth—no matter who is elected in November.
St. Paul reminded us in today’s Epistle: Our citizenship is in heaven. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for you to hold onto this truth during these chaotic political times. Our citizenship is in heaven, safe from the risings and fallings of earthly nations, secure from the hands of corrupt earthly rulers, and from the hands of godless citizens (and voters). The assembly of the baptized, the Church of Jesus Christ, does not tie its hopes to any nation on earth, nor does it put its trust in any political candidate or secular ruler. None of them—no human being, for that matter—can be trusted. Instead, the Christian’s trust is placed solely and completely in Christ Jesus, our only Savior, and our hope and expectation is set fully, not on the establishment of an earthly kingdom, not on the prosperity or the “greatness” of our nation, but on Christ’s coming at the end of this age and on the resurrection of the dead. As we approach our national and local elections over the next few weeks, you will do well to remember this verse from Philippians 3. Our citizenship is in heaven.
So what about our citizenship here below, in this nation in which God, according to His eternal purposes, has caused us to be born? Are we to deny it? Are we to embrace it? Are we to despise Caesar or worship Caesar? Or are we to view him in some other way? All of these things are addressed very concisely by Jesus in today’s Gospel.
Not that the Pharisees were looking for instruction from Jesus on this important topic. For their part, they were just looking for another way to get Him killed. They devised the perfect trap question for Him. Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?
Understand the political landscape at that time. Israel still existed as a nation, but it had fallen under the umbrella control of the Roman empire, whose emperors were still using the title of “Caesar” at that time, after Julius Caesar, whose military and political exploits greatly expanded the power of Rome. Rome had divided the land of the Jews into four territories and placed four tetrarchs or governors over them who were to serve Rome by keeping the Jews in their territories under control. As a result, the Jews were living under the general belief that to be pro-Caesar was to be anti-God and anti-Israel, and to be pro-God and pro-Israel was to be anti-Caesar.
So the Pharisees put this yes/no question to Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar, and they made sure the Herodians were there as witnesses (Herod was one of those four tetrarchs who served Rome). If Jesus answered, No, it isn’t lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then Herod’s men would have cut Him down for inciting rebellion against Rome. If He said, Yes, it’s lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then the fanatical Jews, who hated Rome and were constantly trying to start another revolt, would have cut Him down themselves. Either way, the Pharisees would have won.
But Christ is wiser than all His enemies. He doesn’t give them a yes or no answer to their question. Instead, He defeats their trap by reframing the argument. Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the tax money.” So they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
The fact that Caesar had conquered God’s people, the nation of Israel, did not mean that God’s people should rebel against Caesar. It wasn’t “God vs. Caesar.” Caesar—who represents all secular rulers—has his place in the world, and his place is not inherently opposed to God or God’s people, nor is his place above God or side by side with God, but under God, as a servant of God, with a specific scope of authority given to Him by God, even though Caesar and his entire government were not believers in the true God or citizens of the kingdom of heaven. And the Christian, as a permanent citizen of heaven, who has also been made a temporary citizen under Caesar, is to be neither anti-God nor anti-Caesar. But we are taught to recognize the place of each, and to fulfill our responsibilities toward them both.
What is the place God has given to Caesar—to the secular rulers and civil authorities? The apostle Paul summarizes it well in Romans 13: Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
God has appointed all the governing authorities, including the pagan emperors of Rome. They had no love for the true God or for His people Israel. But what did God accomplish through Caesar Augustus, His minister? He’s the one who issued that decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. That got Mary and Joseph down to Bethlehem, just in time for a very special birthday. What did God accomplish through His minister, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate? He was not a just ruler; He gave an innocent Man over to be crucified. But the crucifixion of that Man means forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation for all who believe. What did God accomplish through His ministers, the Roman rulers, both before and after the time of Christ? The Pax Romana, the Roman peace, allowed the Gospel to spread far and wide from Judea to all the ends of the earth. And, what did God accomplish through His ministers, the wicked Roman rulers who persecuted His Christians and put them to death? The persecution of the Church did not put an end to the Church, but caused it to flourish. As a Church father once wrote, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
The fact is, God always accomplishes His good purposes through secular rulers, whether they intend to serve Him or not—His good purposes, either to protect the life and property of His people for a time and to maintain law and order in society, so that the Gospel can be preached freely; or to punish the wicked nation with injustice, with bad laws, with chaos and destruction. Because even when nations are disintegrating, even during times of chaos and persecution of the Church, even when Christians are martyred, even then the gates of Hades will not prevail against Christ’s Church. We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.
What things are Caesar’s, so that we should render it unto him? Taxes and revenues are due to him—even if they seem excessive. Obedience to his laws—even if they are unjust. Willing submission to his authority—even if he is abusing his authority. Even honor—whether or not he is honorable.
What things are God’s, so that we should render it unto Him? All things are God’s: our bodies and souls, our hearts and our devotion, our time and our possessions, honor and worship, glory and dominion. Obedience to His commands, including His command to render unto Caesar the things that He has given to Caesar.
And God has surely given many things to Caesar. But not His Word. Not our souls. Not our conscience. Over those things, Caesar has no authority. So if Caesar commands us to disobey God’s commandments, then we must obey God rather than men. If Caesar commands us to stop preaching the Word of God or any part of it, or to stop gathering around Word and Sacrament, then we must disobey Caesar—and suffer the earthly consequences for it, without grumbling and certainly without rebelling. Because, while Caesar has power over our bodies and our possessions, he has no power whatsoever over our souls, over our faith, or over our eternal inheritance that is reserved for us in heaven. And through our suffering here on earth, God’s name will still be honored among us, and we can trust God Himself to deal severely with unjust rulers in His own time.
All of this has been said about the rulers who have been placed over us, or who will be placed over us. What does it mean when it comes to electing or choosing our own rulers in a democratic society? I’ve already written something about that recently. Submitting to godless tyrants is one thing. Choosing men or women who give every indication that they will be godless tyrants who won’t protect the innocent or punish the evildoer but will do just the opposite—that’s another thing entirely. Have nothing to do with such choices, with such elections. Leave it in God’s hands, and don’t be afraid. Instead, as the Psalm says, Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
So render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. But above all, for the remainder of this passing election cycle, for the remainder of our country’s existence, for the remainder of your short life here on earth, remember that Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, was raised from the dead and now sits at God’s right hand, reigning over every nation of the earth for the good of those who love Him. And also remember St. Paul’s words to the Philippians: Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. Amen.